Singapore (ANTARA News) - Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday warned against "backsliding" toward protectionism as Southeast Asian economic ministers launched a week of talks to strengthen regional trade links.
Speaking at the opening ceremony of the annual meeting of ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Lee said the negotiations came at a key moment after the breakdown last month of global trade talks in Geneva.
While a strong rules-based global trading regime remained the best option for the world economy, ASEAN "should continue to integrate and liberalise" its own economies, he said.
"Our purpose is not to create a trade bloc; we are committed to open regionalism and adopt an inclusive approach," Lee said.
ASEAN's efforts will "demonstrate the practical benefits of economic openness and contribute in a modest way to maintaining the global momentum for trade liberalisation," he said.
But Lee urged ministers to be "watchful of any backsliding and resist the temptation to raise trade barriers or resort to protectionist practices for lack of an overall agreement."
ASEAN, a 10-nation grouping of about 550 million people, has been among the most active regional organisations promoting free trade agreements (FTAs).
At the Singapore meeting, which will last until Friday, ASEAN is expected to seal an FTA with Asian giant India covering merchandise trade.
The ASEAN-India FTA, covering more than 1.5 billion people, is expected to be signed in December during the annual ASEAN summit in Bangkok.
ASEAN is also hoping to announce that it has concluded talks on a "substantive portion" of a comprehensive economic agreement with Australia and New Zealand.
A Southeast Asian trade official told AFP on Tuesday the negotiations with ASEAN's two Pacific neighbours were about "95 percent" finished, and a deal is also expected to be signed in December.
Lee said ASEAN's free-trade agreements with India, and with Australia and New Zealand, will enhance market access for goods and services and "lay the foundations for us to forge stronger links with the other Asian economies."
An ASEAN trade agreement with Australia and New Zealand would cover a region with a combined gross domestic product of 2.3 trillion US dollars, he said.
ASEAN has already agreed to gradually tear down barriers to trade in goods and services with China and South Korea. It has also signed a wide-ranging economic partnership deal with Japan, which also covers investments.
Forging the trade links with India and the two Pacific nations will complete the bloc's ties with all its key Asia-Pacific trading partners, and could be a catalyst for a region-wide free-trade zone, officials said.
ASEAN's membership ranges from impoverished Laos to Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation. Already 90 percent of goods traded within the diverse bloc has tariffs between zero and five percent.
The group aims to achieve a single market and manufacturing base by 2015 to raise ASEAN's profile in the face of competition from China and India. (*)